This article first appeared as a chapter in the 1977 book 'Readings
in Vedic Literature: the tradition speaks for itself', which was
published for use as a college textbook. This extract is an example
of the depth of research and mode of presentation that is necessary
if ISKCON wants to effectively communicate with an academic audience.
The perspectives and conclusions presented show how Gaudiya Vaishnavism
can find its voice and learn to speak for itself in the contemporary
The first Westerners to investigate the Vedic literatures were
the British, in the last half of the eighteenth century. It is best
to understand their work in the larger historical context of the
British rule of India.
A brief history of the British in India
Early invaders of India included the Persians (600 BC) and the
Greeks under Alexander the Great (300 BC). India's first great Hindu
empire, the Maurya Empire founded by Candragupta (300 BC), expanded
under Emperor Asoka to embrace the whole sub-continent, and it also
fostered Buddhism. After Asoka, assorted northern tribes invaded
India, until the reign of another Gupta dynasty, which united a
section of the country for centuries. In the seventh century the
Arab Muslims began conquering India, and various Muslim leaders
developed empires up until the Mogul Empire, whose chief ruler was
Akbar. During the reign of Akbar's son Jahangir (1605-1627), the
British established their first trading station in India. The Portuguese
had been the first Europeans to arrive, and they competed with the
French and English for commercial control of port cities. Through
treaties with local rulers, the trading companies became more powerful
than the Mogul Empire. The companies received official monopolies
from their governments and held huge armies of mercenaries. By defeating
an Indian army at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East
India Company finally gained supremacy. Throughout the eighteenth
century, the company made treaties or annexed areas by military
campaigns; at last in full control of India, it ceded the country
to the British government.
At first, the British government was careful not to force any change
in religion upon the Indian people. This policy had always seemed
most judicious for ruling the several hundred million Indian citizens
without precipitating rebellion. Thus, under Lord Cornwallis (1786-1793,
1805) laissez-faire had dominated the East India Company's attitude
toward the Indian way of life. Through the East India Company's
regulations of 1793, the governor general had promised to 'preserve
the laws of the Shaster and the Koran, and to protect the natives
of India in the free exercise of their religion'. However, a year
before these regulations went into effect, Charles Grant had written,
'The company manifested a laudable zeal for extending, as far as
its means went, the knowledge of the Gospel to the pagan tribes
among whom its factories were placed'. In 1808, the same author
described openings of Christian schools and translations of the
Bible into Indian dialects as 'principal efforts made under the
patronage of the British government in India, to impart to the natives
a knowledge of Christianity'.
Historian Vincent Smith describes three broad tendencies in Britain's
policy at the start of the 1800s. The conservatives were interested
in improving the Indian way of life, but recommended extreme caution
for fear of violent reaction; they saw no easy overthrow of Indian
tradition. The liberals felt the need to introduce Western ideas
and values, but they hoped to integrate gradually. The rationalists,
led by George Berkeley and David Hume, had a more radical approach.
They trusted that reason could abolish all human ignorance. And
since the West was the champion of reason, the East could only profit
by the acquaintance.
To most eighteenth-century Englishmen (whether at home or abroad),
religion meant Christianity. Naturally, racism played its part also.
This attitude of Europeans toward Indians was due to a sense of
racial superiority - a cherished conviction which was shared by
every Englishman in India, from the highest to the lowest. Thus,
upon arriving in India in 1813, the governor general, the Marquis
of Hastings wrote, 'The Hindoo appears a being merely limited to
mere animal functions, and even in them indifferent . with no higher
intellect than a dog.'
Without governmental sanction or license, the Christian evangelists
came to India and proselytised to undermine the 'superstitions of
the country'. Alexander Duff (1806-1878) founded Scots College,
in Calcutta, which he envisioned as a 'headquarters for a great
campaign against Hinduism'. Duff sought to convert the natives by
enrolling them in English-run schools and colleges, and he placed
emphasis on learning Christianity through the English language.
Another leading missionary, a Baptist, William Carey (1761-1834),
smuggled himself into India and propagandised against the Vedic
culture so zealously that the British government in Bengal curbed
him as a political danger. On confiscating a batch of Bengali-language
pamphlets produced by Carey, India's Governor General Lord Minto
described them as 'scurrilous invective . without arguments of any
kind, they were filled with hell fire and still hotter fire, denounced
against a whole race of men merely for believing in the religion
they were taught by their fathers.' Duff, Carey, and other missionaries
gradually gained strength and became more aggressive; finally, they
gained permission to conduct their campaigns without governmental
license. The missionaries actively opposed the British government's
attempt to take a neutral stand toward Indian culture and worked
with optimism for the complete conversion of the natives. They did
not hesitate to denounce the Vedic literatures as 'absurdities'
meant 'for the amusement of children'.
Historian Arthur D. Innes writes, 'The educators had hardly concealed
their expectations that with Western knowledge the sacred fairy
tales of the East would be dissolved and the basis of popularly
cherished creeds would be swept away.' The suspicion of religious
coercion disrupted British-Indian relations and in 1857 helped touch
off the Sepoy Rebellion (of Indian mercenaries).
The first scholars
Such was the setting in which the first Indologists appeared. These
first Vedic scholars did not form a unified political or academic
party; they were variously conservative, liberal and radical. Sir
William Jones, the first Englishman to master Sanskrit and study
the Vedas, drew fire from the eminent British historian James Mill
for his 'hypothesis of a high state of Civilisation'. Typically,
Mill believed that the people of India never had been advanced and
that therefore their claim to a glorious past (which some of the
early Indologists supported) was historical fantasy. However, by
translating the Vedas for the Western reader and thus evincing the
ancient Vedic genius, the scholars increased India's prestige in
the West. On the other hand, as Aubrey Menen has said, 'It should
be remembered that they (the English of the seventeenth century)
were not the almost pagan English of today. Every man was a Christian,
and it was a Christian's duty to wash the heathen in the blood of
the lamb.' Nonetheless, some of the early scholars rather admired
the Vedic culture they were investigating, even though they initially
conceived of themselves as bearers of Christian light to the sacred
darkness of the heathens.
Sir William Jones (1746-1794), Charles Wilkins (1749-1836), and
Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837) are considered the fathers of Indology.
Jones was educated at Oxford and there began his studies in Oriental
and other languages; he is said to have mastered a total of sixteen.
In addition, he wrote a Persian grammar, translated various Oriental
literatures and practised law. After his appointment as judge of
the Supreme Court, Sir William went to Calcutta in 1783. There he
founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal and was its president throughout
his life. He translated a number of Sanskrit works into English,
and his investigations into languages mark him as one of the most
brilliant minds of the eighteenth century. Sir William was not prone
to invective against another's religion, particularly the Vedic,
which he admired. In his view the narratives of the East, like those
of Greece and Rome, could enrich both the English tradition and
the human mind. Notwithstanding, Sir William's stance was that of
'a devout and convinced Christian'. Thus, he described the Bhagavata
Purana as 'a motley story', and he speculated that the Bhagavata
came from the Christian gospels, which had been brought to India
and 'repeated to the Hindus, who ingrafted them on the old fable
of Cesava (Kesava, a name for Krsna), the Apollo of Greece'. This
theory has since been discredited since records of Krsna worship
pre-date Christ by centuries. H. H. Wilson (1786-1860), described
as 'the greatest Sanskrit scholar of his time', received his education
in London and journeyed to India in the East India Company's medical
service. He became secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1811-1833),
and medical duties notwithstanding, he published a Sanskrit-English
dictionary. He became Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford in 1833,
librarian of the India House in 1836 and director of the Royal Asiatic
Society in 1837. Titles credited to his name include Vishnu Purana,
Lectures on the Religious and Philosophical Systems of
the Hindus and Rig Veda, among others. He also contributed
to Mill's History of India and edited several other
translations of Eastern literatures. In addition, he proposed that
Britain restrain herself from forcing the Hindus to give up their
religious traditions. Compared to the evangelists, he appears to
have been a champion of the preservation of Vedic ideas.
Yet we may be a little startled by his stated
From the survey which has been submitted to you, you will perceive
that the practical religion of the Hindus is by no means a concentrated
and compact system, but a heterogeneous compound made up of various
and not infrequently incompatible ingredients, and that to a few
ancient fragments it has made large and unauthorised additions,
most of which are of an exceedingly mischievous and disgraceful
nature. It is, however, of little avail yet to attempt to undeceive
the multitude; their superstition is based upon ignorance, and
until the foundation is taken away, the superstructure, however
crazy and rotten, will hold together.
Ultimately, Wilson felt that the Christian culture should simply
replace the Vedic culture, and he believed that full knowledge of
the Indian tradition would help effect that conversion. In his modulated
conservatism he seemed to echo the East India Company. Aware that
the people of India would not easily give up their tradition, he
made this shrewd commentary:
The whole tendency of brahminical education is to enforce
dependence upon authority - in the first instance upon the guru,
in the next upon the books. A learned brahmana trusts solely
to his learning, he never ventures upon independent thought; he
appeals to memory; he quotes texts without measure and in unquestioning
trust. It will be difficult to persuade him that the Vedas
are human and very ordinary writings, that the Puranas
are modern and inauthentic, or even that the tantras are not entitled
to respect. As long as he opposed authority to reason, and stifles
the workings of conviction by the dicta of a reputed sage, little
impression can be made upon his understanding. Certain it is,
therefore, that he will have recourse to his authorities, and
it is therefore important to show that his authorities are worthless.
Wilson also warned that the Vedic adherents were likely to show
'tenacious obstinacy' about their 'speculative tenets . particularly
those regarding the nature and condition of the soul'. But he was
hopeful that by inspired, diligent effort the 'specious' system
of Vedic thought would be 'shown to be fallacious and false by the
Ithuriel spear of Christian truth'. As the first holder of Oxford's
Boden Chair for Sanskrit, H. H. Wilson delivered public lectures
to promote his cause. He intended that the lectures 'help candidates
for a prize of two hundred pounds . for the best refutation of the
Hindu religious system'. Wilson's writings are full of similar passages,
including a detailed method for exploiting the native Vedic psychology
by use of a counterfeit guru-disciple relationship. Now, in Wilson's
case, the charge of bias has become aggravated by charges of invalid
scholarship. Recently, Natalie P. R. Sirkin presented documented
evidence that betrays Wilson as a plagiarist: his most important
publications were collected manuscripts by deceased authors whose
works he credited to himself, as well as works completed without
research (such as writing an analysis of the Puranas without
Another renowned pioneer Indologist was F. Max Muller (1823-1900),
born in Dessau and educated in Leipzig. He learned Sanskrit and
translated the ancient Hitopadesa before coming to England,
in 1846. Commissioned by the East India Company to translate the
Rig Veda, he lived in Oxford and wrote many books on mythology
and comparative religion. Muller is best known for his series Sacred
Books of the East, a fifty-volume work which he devoted himself
to editing in 1875.
In 1876, Muller wrote to a friend, 'India is much riper for Christianity
than Rome or Greece were at the time of Saint Paul'. He added that
he would not like to go to India as a missionary because that would
make him dependent on the government. His preference was: 'I should
like to live for ten years quite quietly and learn the language,
try to make friends, and then see whether I was fit to take part
in a work, by means of which the old mischief of Indian priestcraft
could be overthrown and the way opened for the entrance of simple
Christian teaching.' Muller regarded Vedic philosophy as 'Aryan
legend' and 'myth', and he believed that Aryan civilisations had
simply helped bring about the evolution of Christianity: 'History
seems to think that the whole human race required gradual education
before, in the fullness of time, it could be admitted to the truths
of Christianity' adding, 'The ancient religions of the world may
have but served to prepare the way of Christ by helping through
its very errors.'
H. H. Wilson's successor in Oxford's Boden Chair was Sir Monier
Monier-Williams (1819-1899). Born in Bombay, Monier-Williams attended
the East India Company's college and later taught there. After his
appointment as a professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, in 1870, he delivered
an inaugural lecture entitled The Study of Sanskrit in
Relation to Missionary Work in India. Monier-Williams also wrote
a book called Hinduism (1894), which was published and distributed
by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He is best known
to twentieth-century Indology students for his Sanskrit-English
Dictionary. In addition, he spent twenty-five years founding an
institution at Oxford for disseminating information about Indian
literature and culture. He succeeded, and the Indian Institute formally
opened in 1896. Monier-Williams disapproved of Muller's evolution-to-Christianity
view of the Vedic sastra:
There can be no doubt of a greater mistake than to force these
non-Christian bibles into conformity with some scientific theory
of development and then point to the Christian's Holy Bible as
the crowning product of religious evolution. So far from this,
these non-Christian bibles are all developments in the wrong direction.
They all begin with some flashes of true light and end in utter
Monier-Williams further wrote,
It seems to me that our missionaries are already sufficiently
convinced of the necessity of studying these works, and of making
themselves conversant with the false creeds they have to fight
against. How could an army of invaders have any chance of success
in an enemy's country without a knowledge of the position and
strength of its fortresses, and without knowing how to turn the
batteries they may capture against the foe?
Another early Indologist was Theodore Goldstucker (1821-1872),
born in Konigsberg and educated there and in Bonn, where he studied
Sanskrit, philosophy and Oriental languages. After settling in England,
in 1850, he received appointment as a professor of Sanskrit at London's
University College, a post he held until his death. Goldstucker
wrote a number of books on Sanskrit literature and founded the Society
for the Publication of Sanskrit Texts. He also participated in a
number of writing and research projects concerning India. The
Dictionary of Indian Biography describes him as 'an authority
on ancient Hindu literature'. Goldstucker regarded the people of
India as being burdened by Vedic religion, which had only brought
them worldwide 'contempt and ridicule'. Thus, he proposed to re-educate
them with European values. Goldstucker wrote, 'The means for combating
that enemy is as simple as it is irresistible: a proper instruction
of the growing generation in its ancient literature.' In his book
Inspired Writings of Hinduism, Goldstucker assailed the validity
of Vedic literature. His aim was to demonstrate to the new generation
of Vedic followers that he had scholastically annihilated their
scripture and that they should show their appreciation by adopting
European values and improving their character.
It is lamentable that this sectarian raison d'etre clouded the
early study of Vedic literature. When reading the theories or analyses
of these early Indologists, therefore, the student would do well
to bear in mind the bias behind the brilliant scholarship.
Their influence on modern scholarship
College Sanskrit departments no longer award prizes for 'the best
refutation of Hinduism'. Indeed, in the current selection of books
by Vedic scholars, the authors describe themselves as 'sympathetic
outsiders', 'friends of India' and 'admirers of the tradition of
tolerance in Indian religion'.
Nonetheless, some of the missionary Indologists' main theses still
crop up as time-honoured facts. Simply by being pioneers, Wilson,
Monier-Williams, Muller and others have left a lasting impression
of how one should study the sastras. 'The foundations for
the recovery of India's past were laid by certain eminent classical
scholars, including Sir William Jones, James Prinsep, H. T. Colebrooke
and H. H. Wilson . the debt owed these men is great.'
Modern Vedic scholars are hardly missionaries; however, largely
from academic habit, they give tacit approval to many of the first
Indologists' conclusions. For instance, the early researchers portrayed
Vedic literature as a hodgepodge of disharmonious texts. Sir Monier
Monier-Williams wrote, ' . after a lifelong study of the religious
books of the Hindus, I feel compelled to publicly express my opinion
of them. They begin with much promise amid scintillations of truth
and light and occasional sublime thoughts from the source of all
truth and light, but end in sad corruptions and lamentable impurities.'
Like their predecessors, today's scholars discredit the Puranas,
although the Vedic acaryas themselves have accepted the Puranas
as equal to the other Vedic sastras. One scholar recently
commented that Muller attempted to change Hinduism to a 'new and
purer form' and failed, but that 'his conception of the history
of Hinduism, which presented an antithesis between its Vedic form
and the so-called Puranic form . still survives in a modified version'.
In addition, many of today's scholars still teach that the Vedas
are essentially mythological and that the Puranas are not
even consonant with the Vedic mythology. In other words, they disavow
what the acaryas affirm - namely, that the Vedic literatures
form a coherent whole, and that the Puranas are the culmination.
But since it is the Puranas that substantiate monotheism,
if these are dismissed we ignore part of the Vedic picture of the
As might be expected, many of today's students see Vedic literature
as lacking clarity and conclusiveness. More often than not, as one
begins his Indological studies, he hears that Vedic authority is
dubious, that eternal existence is simply a wish for self-perpetuation
and that God and the demigods are ipso-facto myths. Indeed, the
compiler of the Vedas, Vyasadeva, often receives no mention. Moriz
Winternitz writes that the names of the authors of Vedic literature
are unknown to us and that sometimes 'a mythical seer of primitive
times is named as author'.
Yet Vedic evidence confirms Vyasadeva as the literature's actual
compiler: 'Thereafter, in the seventeenth incarnation of Godhead,
Sri Vyasadeva appeared in the womb of Satyavati, wife of Parasara
Muni, and he divided the one Veda into several branches and sub-branches..
Winternitz comments: 'The orthodox . believe the same Vyasa who
compiled the Vedas and composed the Mahabharata, who
also in the beginning of Kali-yuga, the present age of the world,
was the author of the eighteen Puranas. But this Vyasadeva
is a form of the exalted God Visnu Himself.' Thus, without further
ado, Winternitz rejects the possibility of Vyasadeva's authorship
and goes on to discuss other possible authors: since the Puranas
present Vyasadeva as an avatara, he obviously could never
have existed. In this way, Vedic personalities and statements become
suspect, even 'mythological', simply because they are supra-mundane.
The student of the Vedas should understand plainly that
they do describe the supra-mundane, and that to reject their statements
on this basis is really self-defeating. One should approach the
Vedas with an open mind and let them speak for themselves.
Otherwise, they will remain a hodgepodge of 'sad corruptions and
For the most part, modern scholars continue to minimise the existential
and transcendental validity of the Vedas, often without so
much as an explanation why empiric knowledge should take precedence
over sabda, knowledge from authority. Thus, subtly but surely,
the indological scholars of the present day have inherited the pioneers'
bias, and though today's bias is not 'evangelist' but 'empiricist',
it slants just the same. With all deference to the laudable efforts
of the empiricists, we suggest that the student try to take a fresh
look at Vedic literature, through the eyes of the Vedas themselves.
Momentarily setting aside the legacy of the British Indological
pioneers, the new student of Vedic literature will benefit from
returning to the primary sources - the original sastras and
the commentaries of the acaryas. In this way, without preconceived
notions, the student may better appreciate the coherent and many-faceted
knowledge that the Vedas offer.
1. W.H. Moreland et. al., A
Shorter History of Indian Tradition.
2. J. Allan et al., The Cambridge Shorter History of India,
3. H.H. Dodwell, ed., The Cambridge History of the British Empire,
vol. five, p. 122.
4. House of Commons, ed., Observations on the State of Society,
5. Robert Chatfield, The Rise
and Progress of Christianity in the East, p 367.
6. Vincent A. Smith, The Oxford
History of 1ndia, p. 579.
7. R.C. Majumdar et al., eds.,
History and Culture of the Indian People, vol. 10, p. 348.
8. Ibid., p. 337.
9. George Smith, Dictionary
of National Biography, vol. 6, p. 126.
11. H.G. Rawlinson, The
British Achievement in India, p. 53.
12. Christian Literature Society
for India, Idu Series: Epic Poetry incl. Puranas, pp. 140,
13. Arthur D. Innes, Shorter
History of The British in India, p. 303.
14. T. Walter Wallbank, India:
A Survey of the Heritage and Growth of Indian Nationalism, p.
15. Majumdar, History and
Culture, p. 33.
16. Aubrey Menen, The Mystics,
17. A.L. Basham, The Wonder
That Was India, p. 5.
18. 'Jones Tradition in British
Orientalism', Indian Arts and Letters 20 (1946): 10.
19. Sir William Jones, The
Works of Sir William Jones, p. 395.
21. Richard Garbe, India
and Christendom: The Historical Connection Between Their Religions,
trans. Lydia J. Robinson, pp. 214-7.
22. C.E. Buckland, Dictionary
of Indian Biography, p. 455.
23. H.H. Wilson, Works, vol.
2, pp. 79-80.
24. Ibid., pp. 80-1.
25. Ibid., p. 114.
26. Ibid., p. 115.
27. 'Horace Hayman Wilson',
Eminent Orientalists, pp. 71-2.
28. 'H.H. Wilson and Gamesmanship
in Indology', Asian Studies 3 (1965): 303.
29. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Scholar
Extraordinary, p. 325.
31. Vivekenanda Rock Memorial
Committee, India's Contribution to World Thought and Culture,
33. Sir Monier Monier-Williams,
Religious Thought and Life in India, p. 10.
35. Buckland, Dictionary
of Indian Biography, p. 169.
36. Theodore Goldstucker, Inspired
Writings of Hinduism, p. 115.
37. Wm. Theodore de Bary et
al., eds., Approaches to Asian Civilisations, p. 29.
38. Monier-Williams, Religious
Thought and Life in India, pp. 34-5.
39. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Scholar
Extraordinary, p. 327.
40. Moriz Winternitz, A
History of Indian Literatures, vol. 1, trans. S. Ketkar, p.
41. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam, First Canto, vol. 3, p. 57.
42.42. Moriz Winternitz, A History of Indian Literatures, vol.
1, trans. S. Ketkar, p. 527.
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